Last night I saw a ceramic hawk with a switchblade attached to its neck brutally attack a professional basketball team owner in Atlanta. I also saw a player on that team try to make a slam dunk, only to have the ball explode right in his face a few inches from the basket as a demonic little girl sitting courtside curled her lips into an evil smile. And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the things I saw last night while watching my new favorite movie, 1979’s The Visitor.
After reading the above plot points it might surprise you to hear that no one has ever accused the film’s producer, Ovidio Assonitis, of making Oscar-bait movies. Known for blatant rip-offs like Beyond the Door (inspired by The Exorcist) and Tentacles (like Jaws but with a giant octopus), he was once known in the biz as the “Rip-Off King.” The Visitor, however, stands out from those other films for the sheer amount of themes cherry-picked from a spread of the most popular horror films of the 70s. The most popularly cited (the word “popularly” is relative here, as the film has only been written about like three times) sources of inspiration are Rosemary’s Baby, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Omen, and their influences on the film are about as subtle as Satan dropping a player piano on someone’s head.
But while certain scenes and ideas were undoubtedly lifted from those films, to call The Visitor a rip-off would be a mistake. In fact, it’s one of the most original—if convoluted—films I’ve ever seen. The plot centers around a little girl, Katy, who's descended from an evil alien guy named Sateen (get it?) who fled to Earth thousands of years ago and knocked up a bunch of Earth bitches after an intergalactic battle between the forces of good and evil. He was killed by a bunch of birds, somehow, but his spirit lives on through his bastard children. Katy has telekinetic powers that she tries to kill a bunch of people with, and a shadowy collective of old men are hellbent on getting her mom pregnant so she can have an evil baby brother to do bad stuff with. Or something. It’s a real “you just gotta see it” sort of deal.
Lucky for you, DraftHouse Films has digitally remastered the film and is releasing it in theaters across this great nation starting today. In celebration of the occasion and to try and glean a bit more insight into one of the most insane movies ever made, I called Evan Husney, DraftHouse’s creative director, to have a chat.
The first three minutes of The Visitor, courtesy of DraftHouse Films.
VICE: How did DraftHouse get involved with this project? It was a crowd favorite for a while, right?
Evan Husney: Yeah. For me, personally, this film is an all-time favorite and my go-to recommendation for my more adventurous friends. There's something about the movie's complete delirium and hallucinatory, conceptual nature that make it one of the most insane movies ever shot. We had shown the film a lot at DraftHouse cinema and it always went over really well—people always walked out with their minds blown.
How was the film received when it was first released in 1979?
Oh, it was a box office failure. It was a critical failure too, and outside of a very small group of people who would champion this movie, it had always been labeled a cheesy sort of cable TV movie. It was even hard for us to find positive reviews for our marketing.
Well, it's hard to make heads or tails of what's happening during the majority of this film. I can imagine a critic watching it and just feeling like they’ve been set adrift in a nonsensical world of birds and demon children and explosive basketballs.
There are two ways to watch the movie. The first is where you just completely disregard the movie's logic. The second is to put every scene down on a notecard and lay it out—then you'll kind of see the A to Z plot going on, but there's never a sense of you knowing what's happening as it's happening. It has this completely nonsensical logic and if you're cool with that, great. The movie just seems like it's a mashup of 40 different movies.
It really is. The director was already known for ripping off horror films, but with this one it just seems like he decided to throw in everything, kitchen sink and all. Do you think there was any artistic inspiration behind that, or was it just sort of like, "Let’s toss all this crap in there and see what sticks"?
Well, my theory about this is that in the 70s you had this sort of dawn of the blockbuster era. A bunch of movies were raking in tons of cash, and immediately you saw this European market develop where a lot of people made these rip-off movies for exporting purposes. This same director had made a film called Beyond the Door, which is actually a pretty good Exorcist rip off, and he made a lot of money with it on the drive-in circuit. So the thought going into The Visitor, to my understanding, was basically just, Let's just do it again. It worked, let's do it again.
Does the director acknowledge the obvious influences from other movies?
I don't think he's coming out and acknowledging it, but definitely that was a factor. I think it was about taking influence from what was popular at the time—Close Encounters is in there, The Omen too, and The Birds, obviously—all these ideas. And from what I understand, the director was a rabid idea man himself, and would just basically come up with these nonsensical bits that he would inject into the movie on the spot or the day before and nobody really knew what was going on. In one story I heard he walked onto the set one day and was just like, "In this scene we need an elephant." So that's basically what you're dealing with.
There are quite a few big names in this film. How do you think they went about getting people like John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Lance Henriksen to act in this? Did they just throw cash at them?
Talking to Lou Comici [one of the screenwriters] and the producer, Ovidio Assonitis, there are two conflicting stories there. But from what I've been told, John Huston and Ovidio were close, and John agreed to it before reading the script. Once he read it, he was like, "This is either going to be amazing, or it's going to be a pile of shit." So he shows up, does his part, sleepwalks through his scenes, and then comes to the premier and—I don't know if this is true—but according to Ovidio, he said, "You know what, I had no idea we were making that kind of movie. Congratulations." Years later, as the story goes, when John Huston was dying, he invited Ovidio to spend some of his final moments with him. While there, Ovidio saw a VHS copy of The Visitor on the shelf, so it would seem that he really liked the movie. As for the others, Franco Nero was around in the 70s and would pretty much show up to anything, Lance Henriksen was just starting out, and Shelley Winters—I don't know, it seems like she was paying back a favor or something.
It seems like horror films at that time, more so than today, relied heavily on kids being possessed and/or killing adults. Do you think people were more afraid of some sort of youth rebellion back then?
Killer kids, yeah. That’s a good question. There were a lot of killer kid movies, even dating back to Children of the Damned and things like that. I think in this case, with this movie, it really does just dumb down The Exorcist. That was such a monumental film in the 70s, and so many other movies emerged and used the demonic child thing. I think it was also that people were making a lot more personal horror films back then.
Did the directors all have horrible children?
Yeah, that’s possible. Now, though, horror is a culture and it's just turning over the same things to please the same small audience of people. Before it became this culture horror films were used to tell anguished stories.
If you had to explain the plot of this movie in one sentence, how would you do that?
If I'm forced to give you a long-winded pitch about the movie, my go-to one sentence is: "It stars legendary director John Huston, who plays an intergalactic warrior who battles alongside a cosmic Christ figure against an eight-year-old demonic girl and her pet hawk while the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance."
Click here to buy tickets and see if The Visitor is playing near you.
Next up DraftHouse Films is resurrecting Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45. Look for it to be released in HD this December. More info here.
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